A review of The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future, by Arthur C. Brooks.
Barack Obama's rapid fall in the public opinion polls should come as no surprise to Arthur Brooks, who could have told the president that his plans to raise taxes, increase government spending, and seize political control over vast sectors of the economy would set him at cross purposes with a majority of Americans. After all, as Brooks demonstrates in his lively, informative new book, roughly 70% of Americans embrace the ideals of free enterprise and limited government, while only around 30% support the kind of activist governmental agenda now being enacted by President Obama and his liberal supporters. The great question that Brooks poses is whether the majority can find its voice in time to save a system that has given Americans unparalleled levels of freedom, prosperity, and happiness.
The Battle is both a manifesto on behalf of the free enterprise system and a call to action for Americans to rally against the threats to it now emanating from Washington. President of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of several previous books on American politics and culture, Brooks understands "the battle" to be between two competing visions of America's future. "In one," he writes, "America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income distribution, and government-controlled corporations." The battle, then, is not one between capitalism and socialism or even between opposing policy agendas, but between opposing cultures, one stressing freedom, enterprise, and creativity, and the other equal outcomes, redistribution, and bureaucracy. He argues that a series of events—especially the political fallout from the financial crash of 2008—enabled the partisans of big government to seize the initiative, at least temporarily. Their aggressive moves to expand government have brought the nation to a turning point where it must soon choose between free enterprise and social democracy.
How did it happen that, in a 70-30 nation, the minority has gotten the upper hand over the majority? The answer is that the opponents of free enterprise have gained control over the groups and institutions that increasingly make the rules and interpret events for our complex society—journalists, academics, lawyers, philanthropists, and government employees. This minority often fares badly in national elections but uses its control over these leveraging institutions to shape day-to-day political decisions on budgets, taxes, and regulations. In that way, Brooks suggests, the minority has exploited our constitutional system's Madisonian features in order to frustrate the majority's wishes. For the supporters of free enterprise, life in the nation's capitol is like being on a football team that's always forced to play in the opponent's stadium. In such a setting, it's easy to lose track of public sentiment.
The effort to turn the United States into a European-style welfare state is misguided on several fronts, not least because a majority of Americans opposes it. Brooks argues that free enterprise is morally superior to social democracy because it is a foundation for human flourishing. Here he takes aim at those who assert that free enterprise is flawed because it is based upon greed and selfishness. In arguing for egalitarian redistribution, liberals insist it doesn't matter how people gain their incomes, so long as they have as much money to spend as anyone else. Their case is therefore highly materialistic: they assume money is the foundation for happiness or, at least, contentment. Brooks disputes this view, persuasively citing statistics and polls suggesting that the accumulation of money alone does not bring happiness. Lottery winners, for example, despite the immediate thrill from a sudden infusion of cash, are often more unhappy in six months than they were before they hit the jackpot. What really counts, Brooks argues, is "earned success" —the sense that wealth is gained through honest achievement, something possible only in a system that rewards independence, work, and excellence. Free enterprise, then, is superior to social democracy not simply because it is more productive and efficient, but also because it better promotes human happiness.
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Brooks suggests that their support for free enterprise and its allied principles makes Americans unique in the world. It is certainly true, for example, that the various patriotic, anti-tax, pro-gun, and libertarian movements that have always been part of the American scene are unheard of in the welfare states of Western Europe. By the same token, the groups promoting big government in the United States—public employee unions, liberal academics, journalists, recipients of government contracts and benefits—have many parallels abroad. For these reasons, Brooks argues, the campaign to preserve free enterprise is inextricably linked to the effort to maintain American exceptionalism.
If there is a weakness in the book, it is only that it may not go far enough in outlining practical measures to limit government's size and scope. Though it is necessary to make a principled, moral case for free enterprise (and Brooks makes it very well), one wonders if that will be sufficient to win the battle without also implementing measures to make it more difficult to raise taxes, run large government deficits, and expand political control over private businesses. Is it possible, for example, to rein in the political activities of public employee unions? Should we resurrect past campaigns to enact balanced budget or tax limitation amendments? Perhaps super-majorities should be required in Congress in order to increase taxes or run budget deficits. Would it be possible to circumscribe the federal government's powers to guarantee or to subsidize debt (a practice that contributed to the financial crisis)? Should every non-essential federal program be subject to renewal or shutdown every five years? One thing is certain: it will be difficult to slow down government's growth, and free enterprise's corresponding erosion, without beginning to speak publicly about these kinds of measures.
Still, a day of reckoning may be at hand as many state and local jurisdictions, including California, Illinois, and Los Angeles, approach the brink of insolvency. In time liberal Democrats may come to see the obvious reality that conservative, pro-growth policies are needed to sustain even a modest welfare state. In the meantime, the rest of us can watch as the laws of economics impose a rough discipline upon a process that the majority has so far been unable to tame.